Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Why Bartolomé de las Casas should have nothing to do with it.


Protesters lay on the ground dressed in red at Monday’s die-in at Columbia University, New York, as part of Take Back Manhattan, which celebrates indigenous culture and history. The act was meant to symbolize the sinister significance of Columbus Day for many of the continent’s native peoples. (Courtesy of Jerry Levy)

Monday marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day—which counters the federal holiday known as Columbus Day. As evidenced by the current debate surrounding the Washington football team’s name, words are profoundly important. In the United States, Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes the self-determination of indigenous peoples in the Americas against colonization. But a recent well-intentioned effort that sought to improve Columbus Day by calling it Bartolomé de las Casas Day essentially erases the work of Natives who worked to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and instead attempts to unnecessarily create a new white hero.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first officially marked in Berkeley in 1992. The year was significant because it signified 500 years after Columbus’s arrival to island on which the Dominican Republic and Haiti now exist. Indigenous resistance to colonization and its celebration has never enjoyed the luxury of downtime—but the years leading up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival were particularly crucial. Part of the reason is that Natives had moved to cities in unprecedented numbers in the decades leading up to the 500 mark.

The middle of the last century was one in which the US federal government became fixated on dissolving Native identity and tribal assets. The Termination Era, as it’s called, set the context for what happened in an ultimately failed attempt by white lawmakers to disappear Natives and their remaining land. In the late 1940s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, began airlifting provisions onto the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe because of particularly brutal winters. The food helped some Natives get through some seasons, but didn’t reach everyone. The BIA soon concluded that bringing in much-needed food didn’t solve the lack of resources, and the agency began opening relocation points in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver. The program provided moving expenses, as well as job training and job placement services for Navajo and Hopi citizens. Within a couple of years, an expanded program known as Urban Indian Relocation Program shipped Natives off of their nations into a dozen urban cities—including San Francisco and Oakland. What Vine Deloria described as Red Power, a pan-Indian freedom movment, was probably most visible less than two decades later, when Natives took Alcatraz Island for nearly two years, beginning in 1969.

One of the people closely associated with the movement was Mildred “Millie” Ketcheschawno. A Mvskoke, or Muskogee Creek Nation citizen, Ketcheschawno took advantage of the relocation program, and moved to Oakland. Ketcheschawno was no stranger to relocation. As a child, she had left her community at Shell Creek in Oklahoma to attend an Indian boarding school in Kansas. By the time she arrived to Oakland, other Natives were arriving as well, during the height of the Termination Era—a time during which the US federal government conveniently sought to end its treaty obligations to Natives while still taking possession of Native lands and resources.

Nevertheless, Ketcheschawno thrived in her new home. She became increasingly involved among the Bay Area’s urban Indian community, and eventually moved to Los Angeles and then back to Oklahoma for some time. But she made the decision to move back to the Bay Area to continue her education—and to organize. In 1991, with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival looming, Ketcheschawno’s work in the group known as the Resistance 500 was crucial in getting the Berkeley City Council to adopt a name change.

In Berkeley in 1992, the entire year was known as the Year of Indigenous Peoples, and October 12 was dubbed Indigenous Peoples Day. Today, most Natives and their allies will refer to the holiday with this name, to honor the resilience of indigenous peoples over the avarice of a colonizer.

For clarity, when we write about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we should note that the apostrophe goes after the “s,” and not before it. If the apostrophe were placed before it, we would collapse all indigenous peoples into one (keep in mind that the US government recognizes nearly 600 Native tribes and nations within its borders—and that doesn’t begin to count indigenous peoples in the rest of the Americas). In Berkeley and elsewhere, the day is celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day, with no apostrophe—which drives the same point. On this day, we don’t just think about the land and resources that we take advantage of, but of the people themselves, and their self-determination.

That is why I was dismayed to read Matthew Inman’s Columbus Day comic. In it, Inman debunks several persistent and celebratory myths about Columbus, and draws attention to Columbus’s bloody rampage instead. Although the beginning is far from perfect, it’s a good start that leaves the reader to question why we would celebrate Columbus to begin with. But it goes completely downhill from there.

Inman urges that we instead celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas, whom he describes as a wealthy adventurer who underwent changes in the Americas and eventually became the Defender of the Indians. As it went viral, Inman’s analysis drew increasing fury from those who rightly pointed out that de las Casas had argued for the enslavement of African peoples, even though he later renounced his support for it. Inman tacked on an addendum explaining that de las Casas had, indeed, promoted the African slave trade. Although Inman flippantly acknowledges this truth, he also dismisses it too soon.

But Inman also never stops to consider the damaging narrative that de las Casas embodied—one in which indigenous peoples wait in silence to be saved by a white charity complex. By centering on de las Casas, Inman and others who descend from settlers are still lauding a white “hero.” When I celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day yesterday, I celebrated my Guarani people, and I celebrated our capacity to exist for so long in the face of terror. I didn’t celebrate a new hero because I already have those who came before me.

What saddens me most is Inman’s failure to acknowledge the work of people like Millie Ketcheschawno, who embodied resistance in the face of Indian boarding schools, and the relocation program in the middle of the Termination Era. Ketcheschawno and others like her, and not de las Casas and others like him, paved a path for us to celebrate the survival of indigenous peoples. Let’s not forget that.

Dave Zirin looks at how Rick Reilly’s plan to use his in-laws to defend the Redskins name backfired.

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